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October 4, 2006 10:26 AM   Subscribe

What Good Are the Arts? asks John Carey’s recent book of the same name. The New Criterion think Carey’s thesis is informed by cynical political motives rather than earnest convictions, and accuses Carey of dabbling in the risky art of aesthetic relativism: Obviously, art is ultimately about “the search for truth” (a lesson we’d do well to remember before society falls apart). But as Carey and others point out to the contrary, the Third Reich was all about art—and yet, art under the Third Reich had precious little to do with “searching for truth.” So just what good are the arts? Here’s what a few others have to say on the subject.
posted by saulgoodman (45 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
The use of the nazis is a canard. That they loved art does not undermine the argument that art enobles. Aside from the very real qualifier of "what art?", there's also the retort that without the art, the Nazis would have been worse.
And as soon as you step away from the childish view of the Nazis as pure and unredeemable evil, it's a very easy case to make that the Nazis would have been worse without art and architecture. Just like they'd have been worse without Volkswagons.
posted by klangklangston at 10:51 AM on October 4, 2006


Though "One could speculate as to why a professor of literature at Oxford, the kind of person who might once have been expected to be a ferocious defender of high culture against its enemies," from the NC is hilarious. It sounds like they feel betrayed by any white man not shouldering the burden.
posted by klangklangston at 10:52 AM on October 4, 2006


It is worth noting that while the Third Reich was pro-some art, the declaration of some arts as decadent is not particularly a well-rounded point of view. Source (Warning: opening in a new frame)

What good are the arts? They allow a medium to voice one's opinions and feelings. In what fashion is this bad?
posted by khaibit at 10:58 AM on October 4, 2006


The use of the nazis is a canard. That they loved art does not undermine the argument that art enobles.

Possibly. I read Carey's book recently, and I was just a little surprised by how deeply enmeshed the peculiar aesthetics of the Third Reich were in the whole movement. There's some evidence Hitler did in some ways conceive of the entire Nazi project as a large scale work of performance art in the great Western tragic tradition of Wagner and the German romantics. Even if you don't buy those arguments, Carey doesn't argue the Nazi's are any kind of proof that art can't have an enobling effect--what's interesting, as I've said, is the extent to which they Third Reich really were preoccupied with aesthetics in a way very few political movements have been.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:07 AM on October 4, 2006


"they Third Reich" --> "the Third Reich"
posted by saulgoodman at 11:08 AM on October 4, 2006


I like what Marshaqll McLuhan said: Art is anything you can get away with.
posted by Postroad at 11:08 AM on October 4, 2006


I have a different take on this. First, Carey seems to be writing about why art is important to undertake, i.e. why one must create art and why society must encourage artists to create art. The New Criterion article seems mired in that mid 80's conservative focus on education about art. Think "Closing of the American Mind":
Now it is, of course, true that works of art bear any number of interpretations, none of them definitive, but they surely do not bear any interpretation whatsoever.
But who determines whether the interpretation is of the acceptable but not definitive variety or of the "whatsoever" variety? The answer of course, is that he/they do.

The mind that requires a gatekeeper is one that cannot articulate ex ante the criteria for good or high art in a way that can be broadly accepted. (The same is true of those who argue that everything is art).

But the failure of self-appointed gatekeepers like the New Criterion (which is occaisionally quite good) to define the aesthetic, or even to define the basic grammar of art in a way that can be applied objectively to one's subjective impression or interpretation of a work of art, does not mean that there is no aesthetic or that art has no grammar unto itself. It simply means that they themselves do not know it or understand it well enough to select new art of high caliber. Instead, they fall back on a conservative approach of trumpting the greatness of older works, (that are widely acknowledged and understood to be great anyway and therefore their praise of it contributes nothing to advancing our understanding of art), and then go too far to scoff at the contributions of their contemporaries as paling in comparison.

To paraphrase the quote whose source I've forgotten, these critics stand athwart the gallery doors yelling "Stop!"
posted by Pastabagel at 11:11 AM on October 4, 2006


What good are the arts? They allow a medium to voice one's opinions and feelings. In what fashion is this bad?

I think I agree with this, to a point. And that's not too far removed from what Carey argues (except he argues that, with the exception of literature, the Arts aren't really all that good for expressing things either). But The New Criterion piece seems to tow a more absolutist line, literally using the phrase "aesthetic relativism" and implicitly seeming to say: "Ooh, ooh--look out for the liberal boogey man: He'll try to sell you some crazy leftist rhetoric like 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!'"
posted by saulgoodman at 11:16 AM on October 4, 2006


But the failure of self-appointed gatekeepers like the New Criterion (which is occaisionally quite good) to define the aesthetic, or even to define the basic grammar of art in a way that can be applied objectively to one's subjective impression or interpretation of a work of art, does not mean that there is no aesthetic or that art has no grammar unto itself.

Exactly right, Pastabagel, although Carey actually seems to be arguing a slightly stronger position against the possibility of such an objective aesthetics. He devotes a good portion of the book, actually, to discussing why science may not even be up to that challenge.

I guess my view could be summed up as being that anything that might be characterized as approaching real truth and beauty (leaving for grabs just what those terms might mean) are attributes of the real world that great art occasionally manages to point to effectively or to cast in a new light. When art becomes disconnected from the real world, it becomes dangerous or ugly. But I wouldn't begin to try to defend my position here, or insist on it as an absolute. It's just my personal aesthetic view, and in Carey's view that's all it ever could be, and all it really should be.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:28 AM on October 4, 2006


First they came for the Sciences, and i said nothing because i wasn't a scientist...
posted by Artw at 11:38 AM on October 4, 2006


Oh, and Third Reich was all about art in about roughly the same way that the Bush Administration is all about images of the stars and stripes blowing gently in the wind, paintings showing brave hero firemen hovering translucently in the sky above New York (maybe with a halo like glow) and shit TV movies pillorying Bill Clinton for imaginary failings in the War Against Terrorism(tm).
posted by Artw at 11:42 AM on October 4, 2006


Artw: That's not at all true. Hitler, whether you consider him a hack or not, lived the life of a real artist, selling his artwork in the streets, living in art collectives with other artists, etc. Plus, there are some other interesting bits of information about the unique role aesthetics played in the weltanschaaung of the Third Reich--in particular, how much the party was enthralled by the Tragic ideal propounded by the German romantic movement. Hitler and other Nazi party insiders were extremely knowledgable about art history and critical theory; so the Bush administration comparisons are way off.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:54 AM on October 4, 2006


Isn't it a little disingenous to claim that the Nazis were in any way pro-art? The facts overwhelmingly point to the contrary. I think when we speak of "art" most of us mean more than state-sanctioned propoganda to the draconically enforced exlusion of all opposing views. Art requires a modicum of freedom to breathe. Either that, or it will be created in bold defiance of repression. Sure, propoganda could be considered art by the most inclusive definition but to claim that love of propoganda is the same as love of art completely distorts the idea of art.

Or, to reverse-Godwin this thread, the Nazis loved art about as much as Bush loves freedom.
posted by SBMike at 12:09 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]


How can art be quantified the way that Carey tries? Art is the opposite of a rational way of viewing the world. It doesn't describe things in concrete forms so how can it justly be described, categorized or translated scientifically? He's trying to visualize tastes.
posted by JJ86 at 12:32 PM on October 4, 2006


How can art be quantified the way that Carey tries? Art is the opposite of a rational way of viewing the world.

That's your take on what Art is. Aristotle and plenty of others have argued the opposite: That art is fundamentally rational. Who gets to say? And on what grounds? That's a huge part of what Carey's asking.

Isn't it a little disingenous to claim that the Nazis were in any way pro-art? The facts overwhelmingly point to the contrary.

No, the facts say the Nazis were very "pro" their particular vision of art. Hitler himself actually emerged from among the world of artists, and lived in an artist collective at one time in his life. That's a fact. How many "anti-art" people, as you put it, make a living as street artists and live in artist communes?
posted by saulgoodman at 12:41 PM on October 4, 2006


When was the last (first?) time art affected history that was not art history?
posted by Captaintripps at 12:46 PM on October 4, 2006


saulgoodman - I didn't read Carey's book, just the review linked here, but I find myself in the bizarre position of disagreeing with both Carey and the New Criterion.

It seems Carey is taking something already defined as high art, and analyzing it, and questioning whether it is better, so perhaps in that regard he's directly attacking the old guard the New Criterion seeks to preserve. I'm wondering if in the process he fails to take into account that what was once considered high art (say a Mozart concerto) was granted that status by those who understood the craft of music, who could play and write themselves. The audience was of a different caliber then than now.

There has to be some objective criteria that renders something great art and something else mediocre, even within the same medium. There is a process to creating art. Example, painting. There are rules of color, rules of composition. The rules may vary from one idiom to the next or one cultural paradigm to the next, but within the idiom, there are rules. You can break the rules and still create art. But the rules are there. The painting may grab you - "Beautiful!" - but one should have the insight into themselves to understand why they find it beautiful, to understand how the work has applied or broken the rules to reach them emotionally, because that renders the subjective reaction objective and leads to closer understanding of the truth namely why such applications of rules (color arrangements, etc) trigger such emotional responses.

I keep returning to Campbell's definition of didactic art, statis, and kinisis here, though it seems lacking in some subtle way I can't define.


posted by Pastabagel at 12:47 PM on October 4, 2006


You know who else liked art? H... oh, nevermind.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:52 PM on October 4, 2006


Saulgoodman - I didn't read Carey's book, just the review linked here, but I find myself in the bizarre position of disagreeing with both Carey and the New Criterion.

I find myself in a similar position, Pastabagel. As a musician myself, I have some appreciation for the fact that there's what seems to be an objectively describable skill set involved in making music. However, I'm also painfully aware that popular success as a musician in no way necessarily depends on having those skills. Nor can those skills easily be distilled to some measurable set of benchmarks that can be tested against for quality. And what's more, even mastering the technical aspects of a musical instrument doesn't necessarily mean you can write good songs that people care about. Some of the best musicians I've known over the years have produced some of the worst music. So all these questions remain really fascinating to me.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:04 PM on October 4, 2006


I think our present popular ideas about art are a bit misguided. It's the idea of "high art" that bothers me.

We think of art as something separate from popular entertainment. We idealize the "starving artist." We think that art is inaccessible without being highly cultured. We glorify old art while denigrating contemporary popular art. We think that making art for money or success of the artist somehow take away from the seriousness of said art. We think that true art is very serious and can't be positive or optimistic. We think the artist must suffer for their art. We think that art must be enjoyed on a higher level, and that it cannot provide simple entertainment.

To be sure, some art is like this, and there is a grain of truth to some of these ideas, but such ideas tend to ignore a large part of the reality of the arts (I'm using the general term here, not just the visual arts.)

People forget that Mozart was wildly popular not only after his death but throughout his life, and not just with the cultural critics, but with the general population. People forget that Shakespere was a commercial success who wrote most of his plays to earn money. People are reluctant to group hip hop in with serious "art music" forgetting that jazz was treated with the same scorn and levity in its heyday, whereas it is now considered one of the highest forms of American art.

For some reason we think only the poor, struggling bohemian is capable of reflecting truth in our society. Kind of a reverse-elitism. This strikes me as terribly cynical and pessimistic. At the worst, it breeds an intense anipathy towards the arts in our society. How many children are turned off to the idea of arts because the educational system and society in general leads them to believe that any "high art" takes a genius to understand and that if they get any enjoyment out of art, then it cannot be serious. Schools try to force their stuffy view of the "established, great works of art" onto students but only succeed in teaching kids that "true art" is boring.

There is no "high" and "low" art. There is only good or bad art.
posted by SBMike at 1:06 PM on October 4, 2006 [2 favorites]


How many children are turned off to the idea of arts because the educational system and society in general leads them to believe that any "high art" takes a genius to understand and that if they get any enjoyment out of art, then it cannot be serious.

Good points, SBMike: Not to mention how many kids probably don't want to grow up to be some kind of tragic hero.

Carey discusses a lot of the same points in his book, actually.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:32 PM on October 4, 2006


This is a crappy picture, but it once read Art: releaves social constipation. The "function" of art is to allow people to express themselves in ways that are, or at least can be, threatening to the general populace.

As a side note, I also do not know if Mark had to take down his sign. This article is from aboutt he same time that I last talked to him.
posted by khaibit at 1:34 PM on October 4, 2006


And as soon as you step away from the childish view of the Nazis as pure and unredeemable evil, it's a very easy case to make that the Nazis would have been worse without art and architecture.

Well, why don't you make that case, rather then simply stating it exists?
posted by delmoi at 1:40 PM on October 4, 2006


And as soon as you step away from the childish view of the Nazis as pure and unredeemable evil, it's a very easy case to make that the Nazis would have been worse without art and architecture.

Yeah, you know, they also made the trains run on time.

And, viewing the Nazis as pure unredeemable evil strikes me not so much as being childish, but as being only the slightest of exaggerations.
posted by SBMike at 1:48 PM on October 4, 2006


The "function" of art is to allow people to express themselves in ways that are, or at least can be, threatening to the general populace.

khaibit: this actually isn't that far removed from Carey's own conclusion. he basically ends up concluding that art's enobling qualities (if any) are more likely to be found in the process of producing it, rather than in consuming it (but of course i'm simplifying his conclusions on this point quite a bit).
posted by saulgoodman at 2:01 PM on October 4, 2006


saulgoodman said: That's your take on what Art is. Aristotle and plenty of others have argued the opposite: That art is fundamentally rational.


Aristotle also thought that all matter was composed of earth, fire, water, and air. I'm not saying he is wrong about art but our view of art in the 21st Century has come a long way from the way it was back then. Art can be a different form of communication to express something that cannot be explained any other way. That doesn't mean it works on the same level as verbal communication.
posted by JJ86 at 2:16 PM on October 4, 2006


So to oversimplify this is the old battle between the aesthetic vs moral view of art, except the moral view of art here is supposed to be represented by this piece in the New Criterion... which you can all save time reading by jumping to the conclusion, where it becomes even more embarassingly clear the author is a man who knows no pleasures in life more intense than the chance to tut-tut one of those relativism-lovin' liberal intellectuals who's going to cause the collapse of western civilisations if Bush doesn't do something about it before.

Won't someone bring on this mythical collapse already, please! it's bound to be a lot more fun than constantly hearing about it from such boring old farts.
posted by pleeker at 3:17 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]


Won't someone bring on this mythical collapse already, please! it's bound to be a lot more fun than constantly hearing about it from such boring old farts.

Well said, but I think some people actually made such an effort a while back.
posted by SBMike at 3:30 PM on October 4, 2006


...one of the most informative chapters here surveys the efforts of biologists, neurologists and evolutionary psychologists to explain the nature of art and human experience of it. Most, he sadly reports, fall into the trap of seeking some essential property of “successful” art that corresponds to some evolutionary selection process or configuration of the human brain.

I wonder, is he talking about sexual selection? I hope not, because if so then he's got it all wrong.

The idea is gaining momentum in some circles, but it goes back to Darwin. No one is claiming that art that doesn't get you laid is not "successful" and shouldn't exist. Art exists because humans tend to make it, for whatever reason. The claim from evolutionary psychology is simply that humans as a species may have evolved this tendency through sexual selection.

The idea is simply that we have the ability to produce and consume (selectively, mind you) art because of runaway sexual selection. Art cannot be explained by natural (fitness) selection because it arose too quickly, but it is possible to explain it by sexual selection. That is because it is not the environment that selects for traits, but the members of the species themselves. Positive feedback loop leads to runaway process. This makes no express claims on the individual motive of the artist.

But there is the "handicap principle", a theory put forth by Amotz and Avishad Zahavi. In the book they propose that successful fitness indicators don't actually have to express the organism's fitness in any semiotically significant way. They just act as visible handicaps. They basically just broadcast: "I have extra energy & resources". So, the more costly, wasteful, and burdensome a sexual ornament is, the more likely that it will be successful, regardless of what that ornament is. This might actually imply a criterion of "success" in art, but it would exclude a lot of modern art.
posted by Laugh_track at 4:00 PM on October 4, 2006


pleeker: "... the author is a man who knows no pleasures in life more intense than the chance to tut-tut one of those relativism-lovin' liberal intellectuals who's going to cause the collapse of western civilisations if Bush doesn't do something about it before."

The worst, worst, worst thing about today's moral and intellectual climate is the fact that ad hominem arguments are so ingrained in the public mind that mental synapses cease to fire in certain directions.

The world is more diverse than you realize, methinks. To wit: moral relativism is dangerous soul-deadening, Bush is an idiot, and both parties are full of shit. All three of those propositions can be true at the same time. Because it's almost impossible to say how the first theory has anything to do with the latter two. Yeah, they're all in certain peoples' mouths. Well, that's not logical congruence.

Now: can we please have a discussion about something without somebody's political knee jerking? Not everything is a discussion about your preconceptions.
posted by koeselitz at 4:03 PM on October 4, 2006


Yes, moral relativism is dangerous and soul deadening. It is a legitimate problem blown WAY, WAY, WAY out of proportion by people who don't really know what they are talking about. It's a tired argument brought up time and time again by people who disagree with any criticisms of their particular morally absolute stance. I might believe that a universal morality exists, but I'd be hard pressed to define its terms and boundaries and be certain that my conceptions of morality meshed with whatever universal morality there might be.

I don't know a single person who is truly a moral relativist. While the rhetoric of true moral relativism is dangerous and has seeped into our discourse to some extent, anytime I see someone use the "moral relativist" argument, it is invariably a red herring. A cheap shortcut that undercuts opposing arguments without the hassle of listening to them.

I know its a slight derail, but I'm really really sick of hearing this particular rhetorical tidbit.
posted by SBMike at 4:28 PM on October 4, 2006


I've been trying to find the actual quote that goes something like

Science expands the horizons of what we know, Art expands the horizons of what we can know.


Anyone know the actual quote and author?
posted by Osmanthus at 5:00 PM on October 4, 2006


The world is more diverse than you realize, methinks. To wit: moral relativism is dangerous soul-deadening, Bush is an idiot, and both parties are full of shit. All three of those propositions can be true at the same time.

koeselitz: read the new criterion article. it's knee-jerky in its own right. that's what the poster you cite was referring to.

also, we're talking about aesthetic relativism here, not moral relativism. two really different subjects, i'd say. or are you prepared to say that barry manilow's popularity reflects some universal truth?
posted by saulgoodman at 5:11 PM on October 4, 2006


One thing that bugs me about the New Criterion article is the way it ascribes moral relativism as a moral position (and hence aesthetic relativism as an aesthetic position).

This always strikes me a glib response designed to hack the relativist off at the knees and make them as tall as everyone else. But moral relativism and moral positions are different things, I think, and here's why:

A moral position will advance some but (tend to) reject more 'morals'. The position taking is the advancement - "These I believe". Moral relativism rejects any advancement of morality subsets (or advances all of them, same diff) and is thus different from any given moral 'position' and should be seen as separate, owing to the absense of affirmation. Zero + Zero gives a different class of number to Zero + (any given whole number).


Cf "Atheism is just another religion" arguments.
posted by Sparx at 5:27 PM on October 4, 2006


Damn - wiped a final paragraph:

By the same token - it is possible to have a recognisable moral position, such as one imposed by education and upbringing, while filtering it through a lense of moral relativity without any contradiction. Same with aesthetics.
posted by Sparx at 5:30 PM on October 4, 2006


IT's not moral relativism, that's the crazy thing about that position - it's artistic relativism, it's the subjugation of art appreciation by taste, but it's not moral.
posted by Pastabagel at 5:52 PM on October 4, 2006


es, moral relativism is dangerous and soul deadening.

Is it, really? The villian is the hero of his own story. Condeming moral relativism carries with it the condemnation of empathy, becasue that requires understanding the other person from their perspective, not yours. Art is a medium for communicating that empathy.

Consider: is a prostitute immoral? If so, is it also immoral to capture the mind and mood of the prostitute in a painting, to depict her resignation to her fate, for example, and communicate the possibility that she has arrived at that place in life not necessarily by choice but by a lack of choices? Is it immoral to suggest that the person you have labelled immoral a prioribelieves they are virtuous? OR is that type of art subversive and the subversiveness is what brings the condemnation of the morally righteous?

Morality has no place in art, I think. That which seeks to be moral becomes instead didactic, and veers into propaganda or prosletyzing.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:03 PM on October 4, 2006


it's the subjugation of art appreciation by taste, but it's not moral

If you're responding to me, laden-with-carbs, the article author conflates the two strongly in the 6th paragraph when he says.

Amoralism is a moral code; likewise, aesthetic relativism is an aesthetic.

And I disagree with both, for the reasons I mention above.

I don't know much about Nazi aesthetics (so, for once, I avoided jumping in), but, as I implied before, a position one holds, as a result of set, setting and genetic prediliction can co-exist and be studied, without any loss of meaning to an authentic aesthetically relative perspective.
posted by Sparx at 7:15 PM on October 4, 2006


art? truth?
art isn't about searching for truth. art is about creating truth, maintaining truth, or undermining a current truth.
here, of'course i mean truth in its constructed, cultural form.

you want to search for actual truth? try science. or philosiphy. and keep your guard up.

art isn't about what we take out of the world but what we project onto it.
posted by es_de_bah at 7:21 PM on October 4, 2006


and never, NEVER run a spell-checker! no truth can be found there...um...either...
posted by es_de_bah at 7:25 PM on October 4, 2006


Art doesn't make anyone better or worse. Art is a symptom of a working mind.

If there is any correlation at all, some link between ethics and esthetics, it might be that a mind incapable of appreciating art may also be incapable of subtlety, foresight, and empathy.
posted by pracowity at 3:20 AM on October 5, 2006


Art is higher math for people who can't do sums.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 5:51 AM on October 5, 2006


I think art is ultimately important because beauty makes life bearable- and ugly concrete bunkers make it unhappy. Look at Ceaucescu's Bucharest
posted by juliarothbort at 9:24 AM on October 5, 2006


Carey’s favourite argumentative tool is more like a machete. He has a ruthlessly logical mind that cuts through obscurity, pretension, fallacious reasoning and unsupported assertion

[. . .]

Carey writes as a convinced materialist, and this perhaps prevents him from granting that there is an authentic human longing for transcendence behind our attraction to something that is neither necessary nor useful for mere survival.


This pretty much sums it up for me. Sounds like Carey's dancing about architecture, but doing so in that ultra-erudite, catty-as-hell British lit-crit way that masquerades as actual insight. Art isn't antithetical to logic, but it's certainly tangential, and if you try to understand (or explain) art through logical argument alone, you're missing all the best shades.

The writing of Hunter S. Thompson and Milan Kundera and David Foster Walllace, the paintings of Monet and Edward Hopper, the films of Kubrick and Terry Gilliam, the music of Dylan and Radiohaead and Wilco - just to name a few off the top of my head - changed the way I look at, interpret, and respond to the world. I don't need a theoretical framework to know this, and I don't need an ironclad definition of what art is or what its "purpose" is to make it true (to me, anyway). In fact, I'm glad in most of these cases I don't have that stuff (too much lit-crit, for example, has a tendency to ruin a good book).

What good are the arts? I'll take Louis Armstrong's answer ("If you have to ask, you'll never know") over this soulless Carey dude any day.
posted by gompa at 9:47 AM on October 5, 2006


gompa: i think if you actually read carey's book, you'd have a distinctly different impression of what he has to say. his specific claims are not very well represented in this discussion, and i think he'd very much approve of armstrong's answer. carey's target is aesthetic fetishism and art worship as a substitute for meaningful ethical values, not art appreciation. just read the book and you'll see what i mean; carey's definitely not "soulless" (and i'm speaking as an artist myself, for what that's worth).
posted by saulgoodman at 5:21 PM on October 5, 2006


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